We’re on the ninth day of the Great Seattle Snowpocalypse of 2019. The Snowpocalypse started last Sunday night, dumped several inches of snow by Monday morning, and made the roads so dangerous that it took me 10 minutes to climb up a routine incline on my way to the transit center; a hill which doesn’t take 10 seconds to climb. Still, though, I managed to get my ass into work. I managed to get into work every day that week, in fact, in a week in which staying out due to transportation was perfectly acceptable. I stayed indoors the entire weekend. But now that it’s Monday, I tried to head back into work. Even with the snow still falling and my part of the region untouched by plows and closings happening everywhere, I got up at my usual time, exercised, ate breakfast, and tried to head off into the shiny white void to do my job. Then I spent 20 minutes brushing off my car. After that, I got into the buried vehicle, hit the gas, and couldn’t make it out of the snowbank. So I hit reverse, and still couldn’t escape. Then I hit drive again, hoping I had picked up some momentum, only for the same result. At that point, I finally admitted defeat.
Being a child of the Rust Belt, there’s a certain set of values that I come with. One of them is a work ethic. I take a lot of pride in being a hard worker who does his job right. I also take a lot of pride in my willingness to work in less-desirable conditions. But the fact the I was trying to go on today, after any reasonable person would have looked out the window and gone right back to sleep, leaves me a little bit of time to reflect on something. The Rust Belt work ethic that all of us take such pride in comes with a certain dark side. Namely, paranoia.
Rust Belters are the country’s most paranoid workers.
As with a lot of other things, we like to gussy this up as an effect of our trademark toughness. But this so-called toughness causes us to do a lot of stupid things. We’ve taught ourselves that a proper work ethic means going into work no matter what. We’ll try to force ourselves to work through dangerous inclement weather and sickness, even though doing so places ourselves and our co-workers in danger. We’ll brag about how we take all overtime, never use vacation time or other time off, and push ourselves through extra schedules. We refuse to even use up our proper breaks at work. And somehow, we’re proud of this.
This really isn’t our fault. The Rust Belt is so-named because its economy was once based in heavy industry. When those industries all became outdated and outsourced, the factories closed and left a rash of poverty which the region still hasn’t recovered from. My hometown of Buffalo is the third-poorest city in the United States, and the two cities above it – Cleveland and Detroit – are also both Rust Belt cities. (As is fourth-place Milwaukee.) And I happened to be born just a few years after Big Steel bolted, which means I went through my formative years and entered the workforce when everything had hit rock bottom. The prevailing ethos of the region is that you need to appreciate any job at all where you can get one. You go in, you work, no matter the personal cost, because there were five people in line willing to do your job if you weren’t. The result of this is a mindset which is unique in having both the willpower and ability to accept endless heaps of busywork and both the corporate and customer abuses that, all too often, come with it.
It was John Steinbeck who said the reason socialism never caught on in the United States is because the people all think they’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires. That’s the mindset that dominates on the Rust Belt. We’re warped from an early age to believe that the hardest workers will always make do, and that those who are just scraping by aren’t working hard enough. Workers, Rust Belters believe, are supposed to be uncomfortable and on edge because there’s a pile of gold at the end. Those who want things to improve are considered entitled brats who can’t be bothered getting dirty. The largest corporations will keep dropping in with promises of prosperity, but they inevitably bolt. I was saddened to hear that the New Era Cap factory in Buffalo closed and left people out of work. I’m also disgusted that New Era, in spite of that, had the gall to buy the naming rights to the football stadium.
When I moved to Seattle, I found employers who treat their workers with dignity and respect. But I’m also still trying to snap the worse aspects of the Rust Belt work ethic. I felt awkward asking for vacation time when I’ve done so, because I’ve never had employers who offered me that before. When I recently found a dentist who didn’t take weekend appointments, I didn’t know how to ask for the day off to get my teeth looked at. When my teeth turned out to be a bit more of a mess than I had anticipated, I started asking for time off to get them further looked at and fixed with the enthusiasm of a prisoner walking the Last Mile. I don’t know how medical leave even works. I’ve been more at ease in my life than ever, but my programming instilled the idea that I’m somehow supposed to suffer. I’ve finally found a piece of stability and even success in pursuing the life I want to live, so it’s an incredible irony that my old Rust Belt paranoia is still there to keep me from enjoying it.